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JAPANESE TV ADS: Crazy Makes The Future!

It’s a new year . . . and time for the first two-week recap of bizarre commercials fresh off Japanese TV! This first 2017 volume includes:

• The perfect motto for 2017, presented by Cup Noodle—”Crazy Makes the Future!” (Just repeat this to yourself whenever you hear breaking news about the Trump administration.)
• Godzilla vs. Soft Bank
• BitFlyer . . . maybe a catalog to purchase things using bitcoin?
• Samurai Surf Team!

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

It’s senshuraku [the final day] of the 2017 Hatsu Basho! Man, that fortnight went quickly! And here on Day 15 we already know the outcome of the yusho [tournament championship] race. With his win yesterday over M13 Ichinojo, and yokozuna Hakuho’s loss to M10 Takanoiwa, ozeki Kisenosato has guaranteed himself his first ever tournament victory! 

It was a very long time coming. This is Kisenosato’s 73rd tournament in the Makuuchi division, and his 31st as an ozeki. For the past three years he has been the second winningest rikishi in the upper division, behind only yokozuna Hakuho (and beating out both yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Kakuryu). In 2016 he finished in second place (one win behind the yusho winner) in four out of six basho, and won more overall matches than anyone else. He has been performing yokozuna-level sumo for at least the past two years, but his inability to win a tournament has kept him from being awarded that promotion. 

In order to be promoted to sumo’s highest rank, a rikishi must win back-to-back yusho, or do something deemed by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council to be of equivalent merit. I think that just about everyone watching sumo for the past two years would say that Kisenosato has met that bar . . . but that never having won a yusho was a shortcoming that couldn’t be overlooked. It’s entirely possible that if he can finish a strong second in Osaka this coming March, that it will be good enough to get him the nod.

It’s even possible that the YDC will give him the promotion after THIS basho if he beats Hakuho convincingly enough today (though I bet they’ll announce it ahead of time, if this is their intention). [EDIT: In fact, no decision was made today (despite what it says on the video). According to the Japan Times, the YDC will meet on Monday, and the Nihon Sumo Kyokai [Japan Sumo Association] will have an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday to make an official ruling on the matter of Kisenosato’s possible promotion.]

M10 Takanoiwa (11–3) vs. M10 Sokokurai (11–3)—Two rikishi who stayed in the yusho hunt up until the end, and one of whom is guaranteed to be at least tied for second place. Both rikishi were awarded special prizes for their performances this basho. Sokokurai was given a Gino-sho [Technique Prize] for all of the novel kimarite [winning techniques] he used in his successful campaign. Meanwhile, Takanoiwa received a Shukun-sho [Outstanding Performance Prize] particularly on the merit of his win over yokozuna Hakuho on Day 14. (2:20)

M9 Kaisei (7–7) vs. M13 Gagamaru (5–9) (3:50)
M8 Hokutofuji (8–6) vs. M14 Chiyoo (7–7) (4:15)
M6 Chiyoshoma (7–7) vs. M15 Sadanoumi (7–7) (5:10)
M14 Chiyootori (6–8) vs. M5 Yoshikaze (7–7) (5:40)
These are the matches that include rikishi who currently sit at 7–7 and are fighting for their kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. These are always the most hard-fought bouts on senshuraku. The saddest pairing is Chiyoshoma vs. Sadanoumi where they BOTH are 7–7, so one of them will definitely end up make-koshi [majority of losses].

M8 Chiyonokuni (9–5) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (10–4) (8:10)
Komusubi Takayasu (10–4) vs. M4 Endo (7–7) (9:25)
These matches both feature rikishi who are expected to make a run at an ozeki promotion in 2017—Mitakeumi and Takayasu—not to mention the fact that Endo is the last of the 7–7 rikishi. Both of the 10–4 rikishi need one more win to take the first reliable step on that track. Also, these two both were awarded special prizes for their performance in the Hatsu Basho. Mitakeumi was given a Gino-sho [Technique Prize]—he’s a young rikishi who seems to learn new lessons and techniques each day, and immediately apply them to his sumo. Takayasu, on the other hand, was awarded a Kanto-Sho [Fighting Spirit Prize] which certainly came from the fact that in this basho he beat three ozeki (Terunofuji, Goeido, and Kotoshogiku) and two yokozuna (Harumafuji and Hakuho).

Ozeki Terunofuji (4–10) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (4–10)—There is nothing of great merit about this match, other than it may be the last time we see Kotoshogiku as an ozeki . . . and if he decides to retire, it may be the last time we see him at all. (11:35)

Yokozua Hakuho (11–3) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (13–1)—This is it. Kisenosato has sewn up the yusho, but so far he’s done it without having to face any of the toughest opponents (thanks to injuries and withdrawals). If he loses his only match against a yokozuna, there will be whisperings about this being a “weak” yusho. On the other hand, Hakuho is embarrassed by this being the fourth basho in a row that he hasn’t been able to win (something that has never happened since he became a yokozuna) and by the number of kinboshi [gold stars for a rank-and-file rikishi beating a yokozuna]. Showing dominance over the yusho winner would be a salve to his singed pride. (12:11)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 14)

Here we go . . . Day 14 of the Hatsu Basho . . . just today and tomorrow and we’ll have our yusho champion . . . and the immediate contenders are down to two. Ozeki Kisenosato continues to lead with a 12–1 record, and yokozuna Hakuho trails him by one with an 11–2 record. Both M10 Takanoiwa and M13 Ichinojo lost yesterday giving them both 10–3 records (along with komusubi Takayasu and M10 Sokokurai).

So, what are the chances of a playoff?

The 10–3 crowd has only one hope—that Hakuho loses his match today AND Kisenosato loses BOTH of his remaining matches. Then, anyone in this crowd who can win both remaining matches would be included in what would probably be a 4- or 5-man playoff. Very exciting, but very unlikely. No, these rikishi are pretty much out of luck . . . but they’ll keep hoping until the last.

More possible is that both Hakuho and Kisenosato win today, and then go head-to-head on senshuraku [the final day]. And if Hakuho wins that match, then they’ll be tied with 13–2 records. (Admittedly, this same result could happen if Kisenosato loses today, but then beats Hakuho on Sunday . . . but that seems the less likely route.) In this case, at the end of their match, both rikishi would head back to the dressing room to get their hair reset, drink some water, and rest for 10 minutes or so . . . then they’d come back out to the dohyo for a playoff match. One bout, head-to-head, the winner takes the yusho [tournament championship].

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Kisenosato wins today, but Hakuho loses . . . in which case, Kisenosato would be assured of the yusho and the Sunday matches would be just for pride! Or that Kisenosato loses both today and tomorrow, while Hakuho wins both matches . . . in which case, Hakuho would take the yusho with no playoff!

So, you see, there are still a lot of possibilities. AND a lot of other rikishi up and down the dohyo who are fighting for their kachi-koshi [majority of wins] or to minimize the size of their make-koshi [majority of losses]. In other words, a lot of genki sumo is still ahead over the course of the weekend.

Let’s look at today’s top matches:

J3 Ura (10–3) vs. M15 Sadanoumi (7–6)
M12 Takakeisho (6–7) vs. J2 Daieisho (10–3)—These first two matches are of no real importance to the Makuuchi division, both Sadanoumi and Takakeisho have struggled all tournament and are on the verge of make-koshi [majority of losses]. However, their opponents today are the two rikishi who are vying for the Juryo division yusho, which I think is why they brought BOTH of them up to face upper-division opponents. As it turns out, both of these are also terrific bouts! (0:10 and 1:06)

M14 Chiyoo (6–7) vs, M6 Kotoyuki (6–7)—Two fast, strong, pusher-thruster rikishi, both of whom MUST win today in order to stave off make-koshi. This should be an intense match. (4:25)

M8 Hokutofuji (8–4) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (9–3)—These two rikishi were bitter rivals back in their college sumo days, but this is the first time they’re meeting as pros. Given how good they both have been doing in Makuuchi, I think we can expect the rivalry to continue . . . and for their matches to be something for us to anticipate in tournaments for years to come. (8:45)

Ozeki Kisenosato (12–1) vs. M13 Ichinojo (10–3)—From where I sit, this match is all about Kisenosato’s state of mind. If he’s focused and confident, there is no way that Ichinojo will beat him (barring some kind of “trick play”). But if Kisenosato is out of sorts, or distracted, or just daydreaming about hoisting the Emperor’s Cup, Ichinojo has the size and strength to really embarrass him. (11:45)

Yokozuna Hakuho (11–2) vs. M10 Takanoiwa (10–3)—This is the first time these two rikishi have ever met. In the past, that would have just about guaranteed a Hakuho win. But after 28 straight first-bout wins, on Day 8 of this basho Hakuho lost his first time meeting against Arawashi. In part, that’s about Hakuho getting older and a bit slower. But in greater part, it’s about the young rikishi no longer believing that he is invincible—they think they’ve got a chance and know what a coup it would be to get a kinboshi [gold star award for a rank-and-file rikishi beating a yokozuna] from the greatest yokozuna of all time. In the end, I have to believe that Hakuho will take Takanoiwa to school . . . but I’m just not as CONFIDENT of that as I would have been a week ago. (14:35)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 13)

Here we are, entering the final weekend of the 2017 Hatsu Basho, and we’ve got a real barn burner of a race for the yusho [tournament championship]. Ozeki Kisenosato continues to hold on to his one-win lead over yokozuna Hakuho, M10 Takanoiwa, and M13 Ichinojo. M10 Sokokurai stumbled yesterday and now is with the not insubstantial group of three-loss rikishi who hope the whole pack will have a spate of bad luck.

However, it appears that luck is on Kisenosato’s side today as his opponent and winner of last September’s Aki Basho, ozeki Goeido, hurt his knee pretty badly in yesterday’s loss to Endo and has gone kyujo [absent because of injury]. So the leader gets a fusensho [win by default] while everyone chasing him has to get out there and EARN their wins. It also means that while the first tournament of the year started with all the rikishi healthy and fighting, it is going to end with two yokozuna, an ozeki, a komusubi on the D.L. and big names like Kotoshogiku, Terunofuji, Okinoumi, Gagamaru, and Osunaarashi clearly so hurt that they can’t do anything like their usual brand of sumo. And while it’s always hard to tell exactly what’s going on with Hakuho, he certainly SEEMS to be bothered by some kind of arm problem (I’m guessing tendinitis in the elbow he likes to use for his uwatenage [over-arm throw] technique).

Luckily for Goeido, he secured his kachi-koshi on Day 11, so he won’t have the insult of being kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] on top of his injury. The same can’t be said for Terunofuji, who locked in make-koshi [majority of losses] yesterday, and WILL be kadoban for the Haru Basho in Osaka. 

The upper ranks of sumo are really beginning to show their age. It’s very likely that Kotoshogiku will retire after this basho, rather than face the embarrassment of demotion, and we fans should start preparing ourselves for the fact that most of the other ozeki and the yokozuna are all at the stage in their careers that retirement is a very likely response to a chronic injury. Already the Yokozuna Deliberation Council gave Harumafuji a warning that if he continued to give away so many kinboshi [gold star awards for a rank-and-file rikishi beating a yokozuna] they might apply pressure for him to retire. It’s a little strange that they didn’t give a similar warning to Kakuryu, whose “neck and shoulder injury” really is more about saving face in a tournament where he’d already lost five times by Day 10 . . . but maybe they considered that the message would be clear to BOTH yokozuna—”A weak yokozuna will not be tolerated.”

That is all good for speculation about the rest of 2017, but we’ve still got a terrific yusho race that could very well end up in a playoff going on right here! Let’s look at today’s matches.

J3 Ura (9–3) vs. J9 Amekaze (8–4)—A quick stop in Juryo (basically the AAA division) to see Ura, an up-and-comer we’ve been seeing glimpses of for a while . . . and who is likely to be in Makuuchi in March. Today he demonstrates a kimarite [winning technique] that until this match was only theoretical . . . it had NEVER actually been USED in Juryo or above. (0:10)

M6 Chiyoshoma (6–6) vs. M13 Ichinojo (10–2)—Ichinojo remains in the one-off-the-pace group, and today is facing Chiyoshoma—a rikishi he outweighs by 80kg (176 lbs). And tomorrow he’s set to go head-to-head with the leader, Kisenosato, himself! It’s a good opportunity for him to show his detractors (of which I am notably one) that he can step up when the pressure is on. Me, I’ll believe it when I see it. (5:10)

M10 Sokokurai (9–3) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (9–3)—Sokokurai fell off the trailing-by-one group yesterday, but he’s still having a GREAT basho. Today he squares off with another rikishi who’s doing terrific, but isn’t in the running for the yusho either, Mitakeumi. They’re both shooting to impress and secure for themselves the biggest promotion possible for March’s Haru Basho. (8:35)

Komusubi Takayasu (9–3) vs. M10 Takanoiwa (10–2)—Takanoiwa is still in the yusho hunt, but he’s facing Takayasu—a komusubi on a mission! That mission is to get promoted to ozeki later this spring . . . and in order to be on track for that, he needs 11 or more wins this tournament. Two rikishi who are in the groove, and both have something to lose, should make for a great match! (9:55)

Yokozuna Hakuho (10–2) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (4–8)—It’s official, Kotoshogiku is going to be demoted from his ozeki ranking . . . and chances are good that means he’s going to retire at the end of this tournament. That means he has no reason not to leave EVERYTHING he’s got on the dohyo . . . it’s all about pride! This is his 55th career match against Hakuho (the yokozuna leads the series 49–5), and it would mean a lot for Kotoshogiku to go out with a win. I don’t think his chances are good, but I expect him to put up a hell of a fight. (13:20)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 12)

Day 12 of the Hatsu Basho, and for the first time in several days we have no major changes to the leaderboard. Kisenosato remains the sole leader at 10–1, with Hakuho, Takanoiwa, Sokokurai, and Ichinojo one win off the pace. 

Perhaps the luckiest rikishi yesterday was ozeki Kotoshogiku who is both kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and sitting with a 3–7 record. In other words, he MUST win all remaining matches or he’ll be make-koshi [majority of losses] and be demoted. I thought I’d take a little time today to remind everyone about why that’s such a big deal.

Ozeki is an exceptionally difficult rank to achieve. In order to get promoted, a rikishi must win 33 matches over the course of three consecutive honbasho [grand tournaments]. In other words, average 11 wins per tournament when fighting against the top-ranked competitors in the sport. A very difficult task, as evidenced last year by current komusubi Takayasu’s run at the achievement. He went 10–5 in May, 11–4 in July, 10–5 in September . . . all good enough scores an ozeki would be proud of, but not enough to get promoted. Then he stumbled to 7–8 in November and now he’s starting from scratch again. 

Because it’s so difficult to achieve this status, anyone ranked as an ozeki is given a small reprieve from the standard rule in sumo that if you go make-koshi in a tournament, you get demoted. An ozeki who has a single majority-loss tournament is instead made kadoban—that is, he is threatened with demotion. If he has another make-koshi in the following tournament, the ozeki is demoted to sekiwake. But still, he is given one more chance. If in the following tournament he can get 10 or more wins, he will be reinstated as an ozeki. But if not, he’s back among the fighting for rank crowd, even if he manages a standard kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. Of course, ten wins against the top competition is a lot to ask of someone who has done so poorly for two tournaments in a row . . . and, in fact, it is rarely achieved.

So if Kotoshogiku loses even one more bout this tournament, he’ll have a choice. He can retire as an ozeki before the March banzuke [ranking sheet] is announced, or he can come back in March and try to get ten wins and regain his rank. I think he’ll save face and opt for the former . . . to go out with his rank and the dignity of having been a strong ozeki for five years (a good long run) and the honor of having been the rikishi who broke the decade-long “curse” of no Japanese-born rikishi winning a yusho [tournament championship] (which he did one year ago in the 2016 Hatsu Basho). Given the condition his legs are in, I don’t think there’s much chance at all that he could pull off ten wins in March . . . and I think he knows it. 

Or maybe he actually WILL rally over the remaining four days and beat all comers. I guess we’ll just have to watch and see. But while you do, take special care to enjoy his trademark deep back bend and salt throw at the start of each match. We may not be treated to those sites for much longer.

Speaking of today’s action, let’s get to it:

M10 Takanoiwa (9–2) vs. M11 Nishikigi (4–7)—Takanoiwa is facing off against another young up-and-comer. When he hit the top division last year, Nishikigi seemed to be made of the same stuff as Mitakeumi, but since then he hasn’t come along quite that quickly. Still, he’s a tough kid trying to make a name for himself, and beating one of the tournament leaders would be a feather in his chon-mage [top knot]. (2:10)

M8 Hokutofuji (8–3) vs. M13 Ichinojo (9–2)—Ichinojo is beginning to be put up against opponents ranked further up the banzuke [ranking sheet]. Today it’s Hokutofuji who, until his Day 10 loss to Takekaze, was one of the rikishi one win behind the leaders. You know that he’d love to exact a little revenge by peeling another rikishi from that group.  (4:16)

M6 Chiyoshoma (5–6) vs. M10 Sokokurai (9–2)—Chiyoshoma hasn’t had a lot of luck this basho. Though he’s looked strong and moved well, he’s come out on the wrong side more often than not. But he keeps coming back the next day with just as much energy and determination, and a kachi-koshi [majority of wins] is still a real possibility. But he NEEDS a win today. And while Sokokurai is having a much better tournament and has the motivation of staying in contention for the yusho, he IS ranked a fair deal lower on the banzuke. Should be an exciting match. (6:12)

Ozeki Kisenosato (10–1) vs. M3 Ikioi (7–4)—Kisenosato had another little scare yesterday against Endo, but perhaps that win settled his nerves. Today, he’s up against another popular rikishi in Ikioi. However, Kisenosato has NEVER lost to Ikioi in thirteen past meetings, and today would be a TERRIBLE time for him to start. At the very least, this match will tell us a lot about how shaky the ozeki’s nerves are. (11:40)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (6–5) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (4–7)—After getting the gift of a fusensho [win by default] yesterday, today Kotoshogiku must do the work for himself. One more loss and he will lose his ozeki rank. His opponent today is a sekiwake, the rank Kotoshogiku will drop to if he doesn’t win. That’s a tall order, but also a visceral incentive. Can the ozeki pull himself together enough to keep hope alive? (13:45)

Yokozuna Hakuho (9–2) vs. 4E Tochiozan (3–8)—Hakuho’s head-to-head record against Tochiozan is 33–2 (!). This is the opponent against whom he pulled those very weird “cat clap” victories about a year ago. And Tochiozan is having a terrible tournament this time around, already having reached make-koshi [majority of losses]. I’m not saying that this match is a shoe-in for the yokozuna, but it’s one he is probably thankful to have after his recent close calls. (14:25)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 11)

Day 11 of the Hatsu Basho brings the leaderboard back into something closer to what seems normal . . . but still I don’t think anyone is going to be “certain” of anything for the rest of the tournament. Ozeki Kisenosato seemed to have soothed his jangled nerves with his win over injury-plagued ozeki Terunofuji, and yesterday’s co-leader, M10 Takanoiwa, seemed to have picked up those rattled nerves (like “what the heck am I doing as a co-leader?!?”) and looked like a deer caught in a Mack truck’s headlights in his loss to Chiyotairyu. Hopefully, he can regain his wits and make a press for double-digit wins.

In other matches, it looked like Hakuho snapped out of whatever had him so befuddled the previous couple of days. But the pundits have pointed out that since the weekend he has only been using tsuppari [pushing and thrusting styles] rather than his usual yotsu-sumo [grabbing the belt]. What does it mean? No one knows. Hakuho never says much about himself, his health, or his tactics, so people are left to guess. 

Sokokurai had to work hard against Osunaarashi yesterday, despite the fact that the Egyptian rikishi’s right knee is so bad that he can’t use any of the big, power-sumo maneuvers he’s known for. But in the end, Sokokurai won and he remains one behind the leader. Also still in that spot is Ichinojo, who will certainly have the easiest schedule over the final five days of the tournament because he’s ranked all the way down at M13. 

So, now that Kisenosato has regained sole possession of the lead, will he settle down and do his kind of sumo again? I’d say the chances are good. Today he fights M4 Endo (who he lost to in November) and tomorrow his opponent will be M3 Ikioi (who didn’t beat the ozeki at all in 2016). That will leave him with one more ozeki (Goeido), one yokozuna (Hakuho), and one as-yet-undecided opponent to face over the final weekend. (He doesn’t have to fight komusubi Takayasu because they come from the same stable.) The other yokozuna (Kakuryu) has pulled out kyuju [out for injury] starting today, so Kisenosato is saved from that challenge.

I can hear some of you saying “Injury? What injury? Kakuryu has just been fighting badly!” And you’re right. But it’s considered a big shame for a yokozuna to go make-koshi, and if things look headed that way, they often invent an injury just to save face. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on with Kakuryu here. 

Kakuryu’s departure is terrific news for ozeki Kotoshogiku, who was scheduled to fight the yokozuna today. At 3–7 and having started the tournament kadoban [in danger of ozeki demotion], Kotoshogiku’s back is to the wall. If he loses one more match, he’ll hit make-koshi [majority of losses] and his demotion will be assured. The only question will be what he chooses to do about it. But I’ll save those details and that discussion for another day.

Let’s look at today’s matches:

M16 Osunaarashi (3–7) vs. M13 Ichinojo (8–2)—Ichinojo gets to face the injured Osunaarashi today, which means he’ll most likely stay one win off the lead. Sadly, unless the Egyptian rikishi finds a way to win all his remaining bouts, he’ll be back down in Juryo again for the March tournament. Really, I just hope he heals up and gets back into the form he had in 2015.  (0:55)

M12 Takakeisho (4–6) vs. M10 Sokokurai (8–2)—Takakeisho is in his first tournament in the upper division and fighting with a new shikona [fighting name] (if you ever watched him in Juryo, he went by the name Sato). He’s got a lot of gumption, and the word is that he almost never falls down . . . you have to push him out of the ring. We’ll see if Sokokurai has heard that news, and if he can keep himself in the hunt for the yusho [tournament championship]. (2:07)

M8 Hokutofuji (7–3) vs. M14 Chiyotairyu (5–5)—Hokutofuji fell off the leaderboard with his loss yesterday, but he’s still searching for his eighth win . . . which would give him his eleventh straight kachi-koshi [majority of wins] since joining sumo professionally. (4:20)

M6 Chiyoshoma (5–5) vs. M10 Takanoiwa (8–2)—Can Takanoiwa bounce back from yesterday’s embarrassing loss (he really looked like his mind was somewhere else)? He may have lost his share of the lead, but he’s still only one win off the pace. (7:25)

Ozeki Kisenosato (9–1) vs. M4 Endo (5–5)—The universe is giving Kisenosato another chance. He’s once again got sole possession of the lead and only one really tough opponent left to face, but he has to make short work of the lesser opponents on his schedule. Endo is a popular rikishi, but he’s proven that he doesn’t have what it takes to play with the big dogs. If he gives Kisenosato a run for his money, that’s a bad sign for the ozeki. (11:50)

Ozeki Terunofuji (4–6) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (8–2)—Terunofuji is clearly still very injured, but he’s been giving it his all, especially against top-ranked opponents. He gave Kisenosato a surprisingly tough time yesterday, and actually beat Goeido on Day 8. The big question, though, is what Hakuho will bring to the ring. Is he ready to go back to the belt, where he dominates Terunofuji, or will he stick to pushing and thrusting, where the bigger ozeki has a distinct advantage? (13:50)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 10)

Is it okay to start off two posts in a row with a slack-jawed “Holy cats!” I HOPE so because . . . HOLY CATS!!! Of all the possible scenarios I imagined at the start of yesterday’s matches, this was not one of them: Kisenosato loses, Hakuho loses, and all but one of the lower-ranked contenders lose, too, leaving us with ozeki Kisenosato and M10 Takanoiwa tied for the lead with 8–1 records, and yokozuna Hakuho, M3 Ikioi, M8 Hokutofuji, M10 Sokokurai, and M13 Ichinojo all one win off the pace at 7–2. That also leaves five more rikishi still within striking distance at 6–3 . . . and who’d have ever thought that 6–3 could be considered “in the running”?!?

It seemed too good to be true to have Kisenosato in the lead and looking strong. Over the past two years he has ALWAYS found a way to let his guard down when good fortune stared him in the face, and that seems to be what happened yesterday. With an opponent doing as badly as Kotoshogiku has been, that ought to have been an easy win. But rather than showing strength by taking control of the match, Kisenosato instead tried to show strength by being overly calm about it. But out of nowhere, Kotoshogiku pulled together more energy than he’d shown in all of his Week 1 matches combined, looking more like the man who won this basho a year ago, and calm, cool, collected Kisenosato didn’t have an answer. He just let his opponent bumpity-bump him backwards and off the dohyo . . . and out of the sole lead in the tournament.

On the other hand, Hakuho, who had been taken completely by surprise in his Day 8 match, also fell into a calm, cool, unflappable rhythm, only to find Takayasu immediately in his face. Hakuho got flat out beaten at the tachi-ai [initial charge] and pushed back onto his heels . . . and that never happens. (And by “never” I mean that even at his most injured I have literally NEVER seen that happen before.)

Now suddenly we’re approaching the final third of the tournament and rikishi like Ichinojo, Goeido, and Ikioi are reasonable contenders for the yusho. On the one hand, it’s great to see a tournament with this much competition, and this much uncertainty about who the winner will be. On the other hand, if the choice is between a predictable yusho winner and the type of sloppy sumo we’ve seen the past few days, I’ll take predictability every time. I want to see all the rikishi performing to the best of their abilities. I LIKE it when a lower ranked rikishi pulls off a stunning upset through superior performance. But it flat out annoys me when it looks like the top-rankers simply aren’t all there, and are losing because of a lack of focus. 

But enough of my kvetching. Let’s look at today’s matches:

M15 Sadanoumi (6–3) vs. M13 Ichinojo (7–2)—Ichinojo is trimmer than he was a few basho ago, he’s moving quickly, and ranked down at M13 the competition isn’t as stiff as he’s probably used to. So it’s no real surprise that he’s doing well. Chances are, he’ll have the easiest route to senshuraku [the final day], and that may give him an edge in the yusho race. (0:45)

M10 Takanoiwa (8–1) vs. M14 Chiyotairyu (4–5)—I don’t know who’s more surprised to find Takanoiwa tied for the lead, the sumo pundits or Takanoiwa himself. Despite being one step ahead of everyone except Kisenosato, he’s probable the least likely among all those on the leaderboard to actually WIN the whole thing, well, he’s THERE . . . and anything could happen. (2:15)

M16 Osunaarashi (3–6) vs. M10 Sokokurai (7–2)—Sokokurai is a hard one to figure. He’s got a lot of experience, and he’s exactly the sort of rikishi who COULD win a yusho by being dominant in the middle of the pack. It’s only when you get to the very upper crust, the ozeki and yokozuna, that there are opponents who are likely to simply dominate him . . . and chances are that they won’t push him up that high. So he’s definitely one to keep an eye on. Today, he’s facing Egyptian Osunaarashi, who is the kind of rikishi who could dominate over Sokokurai, except that his right knee is badly injured and he’s having trouble beating anyone. But if Sokokurai isn’t careful in this match, he could find himself hoisted into the air and out of contention. (2:40)

M5 Takekaze (6–3) vs. M8 Hokutofuji (7–2)—This is only Hokutofuji’s second basho in the top division, and only his twelfth overall. So, really, I don’t know much about him. I DO know that he still hasn’t had a make-koshi [majority of losses] as a professional (similar to how shin-sekiwake Shodai was when he broke through last year, and look how well he’s doing)! You might say that makes him very unlikely to pull off a miracle yusho . . . or you might say that he doesn’t have enough experience yet to know that he shouldn’t be able to do this. Guess we’ll just have to watch his matches. (6:15)

Ozeki Kisenosato (8–1) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–5)—After his surprise loss to a struggling ozeki yesterday, one wonders how Kisenosato will do against the other struggling ozeki. One hopes he’ll bounce back and get back to being dominant, but sumo doesn’t always work like that. Once you let the magic slip, it’s sometimes hard to get back. Certainly, expect Terunofuji to be as energized as Kotoshogiku was yesterday. So Kisenosato had better find his A-game again quickly or this rare opportunity is going to slip through his fingers . . . again. (11:12)

Ozeki Kotoshogiki (3–6) vs. ozeki Goeido (6–3)—This match has nothing to do with the yusho hunt (though, in theory, Goeido is still a dark horse contender). With his win over Kisenosato yesterday, Kotoshogiku showed that he still has some small ray of hope of saving his ozeki ranking. But he can only afford one more loss, and he’s going to be facing the top rankers from here on . . . starting with Goeido today. (13:03)

M3 Ikioi (7–2) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (7–2)—Poor Ikioi. He’s a very likable rikishi with a lot of talent, but he’s also one of those rikishi who gets inside his own head too much. I feel like he could be a top contender, if he could get into the right headspace. As it is, he’s like Kisenosato—only more so. And today he has to fight Hakuho. Of course, Hakuho has just lost two days in a row, and looked confused at the end of both matches. Maybe Ikioi can keep that streak going . . . but I don’t think he will. (15:20)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 9)

Holy cats! What a difference a day makes! Day 9, the start of Week 2 of the Hatsu Basho kicks off with a lone rikishi undefeated atop the leaderboard . . . and it’s ozeki Kisenosato! To say that Hakuho’s loss yesterday was a surprise is a vast understatement. He was facing M2 Arawashi for the first time ever, and Hakuho is noted for beating newcomers the first time out . . . he’d done it the previous twenty-eight times in a row. Iven more surprising was how quickly and smoothly the young Mongolian accomplished the feat—using Hakuho’s own hit-and-roll tachi-ai and maneuvering the yokozuna in a full circle and out of the ring before he knew what had happened. If you go back and rewatch the video, note the look of shock on the yokozuna’s face.

The tournament really is in Kisenosato’s own hands at this point. If he can win all seven remaining bouts, he’s won the yusho. That’s, of course, much easier to say than do . . . but the fact of the matter is that he’s had precious few opportunities like this in the past few years, and there’s no telling when (or even if) he’ll get another. Kisenosato needs to take advantage of this opportunity, if only for his own sanity.

Yesterday I said I was going to spare a few words for rikishi who are underperforming this tournament, so let’s start with the winner of the November basho, yokozuna Kakuryu. He came into the Hatsu Basho hoping to win back-to-back yusho [tournament championship], but that hope took a big hit on Day 4 when he lost to M1 Mitakeumi . . . and then pretty much crumbled as he lost again on Days 5 and 6. Three losses in Week 1 is pretty much a guarantee of being out of the running. Even when he bounced back with a Day 7 win over M3 Okinoumi, he did so while literally falling on his butt. Any hope that Kakuryu had shaken off the rust that has make him a second-class yokozuna for the past few years is pretty much gone.

In even bigger trouble is ozeki Kotoshogiku. One year ago he shocked the sumo world by taking the 2016 Hatsu Basho yusho. But then he went on to have a pretty humdrum rest of the year, marked by injuries and a pair of make-koshi [majority of losses] records. The second of those was in November, and leave him kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in this tournament. Unlike the six previous times he’s been in this situation, though, Kotoshogiku has been performing terribly this tournament. He goes into the final week with a 2–6 record. He now must win six of his remaining seven bouts, five of which will be against fellow ozeki and the two yokozuna. It seems all but a foregone conclusion that Kotoshogiku is going to lose his ozeki rank when this tournament is done. The question is—what will he do next? (I’ll give my opinions on that question in a future post.)

Enough of my prattle . . . let’s have a look at today’s action:

M13 Ichinojo (6–2) vs. M10 Sokokurai (7–1)—Sokokurai is one of only three rikishi with 7–1 records, one win behind leader Kisenosato. Of course, he’s way down the banzuke [ranking sheet] and will soon have to start fighting up. One could even say that begins today, because while Ichinojo is ranked down at M13 for this basho, he really has the skills to be at M5 or higher.  (2:40)

M10 Takanoiwa (7–1) vs. M7 Aoiyama (4–4)—Takanoiwa is the other rank-and-file rikishi currently in contention for the yusho [tournament championship], and he too is starting to fight up to prove his worthiness. Today he’s got the big, blue Bulgarian, Aoiyama (whose shikona [fighting name] actually DOES translate as “blue mountain”). (3:41)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (5–3) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (5–3)—This match may not have any implications on this yusho, but it does pit two rikishi who are likely to regularly be contenders in the months and years to come. Two rikishi who both have decent chances of earning ozeki promotions within the next year. (8:55)

Ozeki Kisenosato (8–0) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (2–6)—Kisenosato is the sole leader of the tournament. His destiny is in his own hands. Sadly, when this has been the situation in the past, he has gotten an unfortunate case of butter-fingers. Can he stay focused and press on to his first yusho. He’s gotten a little bit of luck here in that today’s match is against a rikishi who seems destined for make-koshi [majority of losses], and whose spirit seems broken. Kotoshogiku absolutely MUST win this match . . . he must win EVERY match he has left if he wants to retain his ozeki rank. The question is, will this pressure be enough to rouse his sleeping skills? (11:20)

Komusubi Takayasu (5–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (7–1)—Hakuho didn’t just lose yesterday, he got played. He lost so badly that when it was done he had a confused look on his face as if to say, “What actually just happened?” One can only guess that he’ll be coming back looking to avenge himself today, and poor Takayasu is standing in his way. Of course, Takayasu has been having a pretty terrific tournament on his own, and he certainly wants to continue that with an upset over Hakuho. I just wouldn’t bet that way. (13:20)

Yokozuna Kakuryu (5–3) vs. M3 Ikioi (6–2)—Kakuryu is out of contention for the yusho, unless things for crazily south for about six other rikishi. But he’s still a yokozuna with a lot of pride, and that means he’s going to be gunning to put away the last few lower ranked opponents he’ll have for the basho. Ikio is having a terrific basho ranked at M3, and would like to add a kinboshi [gold star award] for beating a yokozuna to make it even better . . . and Kakuryu is looking like a reasonable target. Should be a good match. (14:30)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho—Nakabi [The Middle Day] (Day 8)

It’s nakabi [the middle day] . . . Day 8 of the Hatsu Basho and we have the very familiar situation of yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato being unbeaten and tied atop the leaderboard. Meanwhile, although they aren’t on top of the pile, allow me to take a few paragraphs to talk about other rikishi who are looking strong this basho.

The other day I already mentioned how impressed I am with two of the young rikishi—M1 Mitakeumi and shin-sekiwake Shodai—and both continue to look strong. But you should also be paying attention to komusubi Takayasu. He had a terrific 2016, making a strong run at an ozeki promotion. If he’d gotten 11 wins or more last November, he’d had gotten that bump . . . but unfortunately he slipped wound up with a make-koshi [majority of losses] 7–8. But he seems to have bounced back into his previous shape, going 5–2 during Week 1—including three wins over ozeki (Terunofuji, Goeido, and Kotoshogiku) and one over a yokozuna (Kakuryu). If Takayasu is going to perform as well as he did in 2016, there is no doubt that he will be promoted to ozeki, probably around mid-year.

I’ve talked about how impressed I am with shin-sekiwake [first time at the rank of sekiwake] Shodai, so it seems only fair that I do the same for the OTHER shin-sekiwake we have this basho, Tamawashi. After all, Tamawashi has an even better record so far (4–3) including beating Shodai in their head-to-head match! He hasn’t had as much ballyhoo around him as he climbed the banzuke [ranking sheet], but quietly getting your work done is great way to get ahead in sumo. Tamawashi hasn’t faced as many ozeki and yokozuna as Shodai has yet, but he’s put himself in a strong position to get a kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and hold on to his sekiwake rank for another tournament. 

Tomorrow, maybe I’ll talk a bit about rikishi who are underperforming this basho. Meanwhile, let’s look at today’s matches:

M13 Ichinojo (6–1) vs. M8 Chiyonokuni (5–2)—Ichinojo is once again doing dominant sumo in the lower half of the banzuke [ranking sheet]. From this point on, though, he can expect to get a steady diet of opponents ranked above him, starting with Chiyonokuni today. Chiyonokuni has looked focused and determined all tournament, and should provide a good match against the big guy. (3:00)

M5 Takekaze (4–2) vs. M9 Kaisei (3–3)—Takekaze is both one of the smallest and one of the oldest rikishi in the top division, but he’s showing a true warrior’s grit this basho. On the other side is Kaisei, who has two distinct styles of sumo—one lets him be dominant when ranked at sekiwake, the other has him struggling for a kachi-koshi when ranked at M9. The question is, which Kaisei will show up today? (5:15)

Komusubi Takayasu (5–2) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (4–3)—Two rikishi that I’ve been talking about in my daily commentary, either one has what it takes to be promoted to ozeki, if they can stay focused over the course of three consecutive basho. Let’s see what happens when they go head-to-head. (8:50)

Ozeki Kisenosato (7–0) vs. M3 Okinoumi (2–5)—One of our co-leaders going up against a rikishi who’s been struggle to notch wins this basho. It may not seem like an exciting match, but Okinoumi has suffered mostly from bad luck this tournament, and has pressed many of his opponents to the ring’s edge before having the tables turned on him. Also Kisenosato has a tendency to take his foot off the gas here in the middle days of the tournament. At the very least, this match will give us an idea what to expect from these two in Week 2. (11:50)

M2 Arawashi (1–6) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (7–0)—There are three reasons not to write this off as a walk-over win for the yokozuna—1. Everyone brings their best performance when they face Hakuho, 2. These two have never faced each other before, so Hakuho doesn’t have any real idea what Arawashi will do, and 3. Arawashi’s only win so far this basho was against another yokozuna (Kakuryu on Day 6). As they say, anything can happen on a given day. More of interest to me is the fact that Hakuho is fighting from the West side today. I can only assume that with Harumafuji going kyuju [absent for injury], Hakuho has been switched from being ranked as the second East yokozuna to being the West Yokozuna to repair the imbalance a the top of the banzuke, and this will be his spot for the rest of the tournament. (15:35)

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho (Day 7)

It’s Day 7 of the Hatsu Basho [New Year’s Tournament], and we enter the middle weekend with a very familiar set of circumstances—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato are tied atop the leaderboard as the only two remaining unbeaten rikishi. All three of the rank-and-file rikishi who were tied with them lost yesterday, leaving just the two best sumotori of the past few years in the lead for the first yusho [tournament championship] of the year.

I think I’m going to make an effort to focus on the rivalry between these two more during the coming year, and in particular to note that Kisenosato has been the strongest competition that Hakuho has faced (rather than either of his fellow yokozuna). It’s unfortunate, though, that Kisenosato has the dubious distinction of being the only one of the yokozuna or ozeki to NEVER have won a yusho. Indeed, he’s the only rikishi in history to have won the prize for most wins in a calendar year (something he did last year, after finishing second behind Hakuho for that honor the previous two or three years) but NOT have won a yusho during that time period. That Kisenosato could put together multiple years of great performances, but never put together a good enough fortnight to taste victory is one of the oddities of the sport. I have a feeling, though, that Kisenosato IS going to win his first yusho in 2017 . . . and he might even win his second, too. If he doesn’t though, I think he’s destined to go down in history to be the greatest rikishi never to win a tournament, and probably the greatest ozeki of all time. 

Of course, the reason that Kisenosato is in this position is that he’s been fighting during the era of Hakuho, who is sure to go down as the greatest yokozuna of all time. As if to prove that point, when Hakuho takes to the dohyo today, it will be his 819th match as a yokozuna . . . breaking the all-time record previously held by Kitanoumi (a great yokozuna of the 1970s and ’80s).

Anyway, let’s have a look at today’s matches. 

We start with more sad news, the number of kyujo [absent for illness or injury] rikishi rises to two as yokozuna Harumafuji has withdrawn because of the hamstring strain (that he suffered two days ago while flipping M3 Okinoumi) and exacerbated yesterday (while being flipped by sekiwake Tamawashi).

M15 Chiyoo (2–4) vs. M10 Sokokurai (5–1)—This is Chiyoo’s debut tournament in the Makuuchi Division, and he looks like a kid with a lot of potential. In fact, he really shows it today against Sokokurai who, until yesterday’s loss, had been tied atop the leaderboard. Very spirited sumo here! (3:20)

M8 Hokutofuji (5–1) vs. M8 Chiyonokuni (4–2)—Hokutofuji is another rikishi who only yesterday suffered his first loss, and now is trying to bounce back against Chiyonokuni, an opponent he’s never beaten in the past (though they’ve only fought once before). This match is a great example of how it IS possible to be TOO aggressive in sumo. (6:45)

Ozeki Kisenosato (6–0) vs. M4 Tochiozan (1–5)—Kisenosato is one of the leaders, so it makes sense to keep an eye on what he’s doing. Today, though, he’s facing Tochiozan who is looking very out of sorts this basho. Meanwhile, Kisenosato is looking strong and confident. (11:30)

Yokozuna Hakuho (6–0) vs. sekiwake Tamawashi (4–2)—Hakuho is our other leader, and he’s been looking pretty good—putting in as little work as needed to beat his Week 1 opponents (although that’s led to some situations where was surprised off the tachi-ai and had to turn the tables on his opponents, he’s done so with ease). Today, though he’s up against shin-sekiwake [first-time at the third highest rank] Tamawashi, who has started with a very respectable four wins in Week 1. On a side note, this is Hakuho’s 819th match at the rank of yokozuna, a new all-time record and another feather in his already well-feathered cap. (13:40)

Yokozuna Kakuryu (3–3) vs. M3 Okinoumi (2–4)—Kakuryu entered the tournament hoping to win two yusho [tournament championships] in a row. Not that he needs to—he already achieved that feat once in order to become a yokozuna—but it’s a point of pride. However, he has look all kinds of out of sorts in Week 1. Of course, the same can be said for his opponent today, Okinoumi, who has had days where he looked like a contender, but others where he just seemed to be going through the motions. It’s anyone’s guess which version of EITHER rikishi will show up today. (15:12)